This is it. Ten years, 18 movies, and countless end credit scenes leading up to one of the most anticipated and unprecedented events in genre cinema. Dozens of characters coming together in what’s billed as the pinnacle of what a shared universe narrative can accomplish. So why does it feel more like an obligatory set-up than a genuine reward and pay-off?
“It” is of course Avengers: Infinity War, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nearly every hero, anti-hero, and supporting character from every previous Marvel film makes an appearance when galactic warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally follows through with his long-simmering threat to collect all six of the all-powerful Infinity Stones. Should he collect them all, he’ll be able to fulfill his lifelong ambition of eliminating half the life in the universe with a snap of his fingers. Which is a Very Bad Thing. It’s up to a small army of heroes, mystics, aliens, talking raccoons, and robots to stop him.
A quick side note: the film is very difficult to discuss without giving away spoilers. I will attempt to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but a warning right here and now that THERE MAY BE MILD SPOILERS is appropriate.
Infinity War assumes you’ve kept up for the past 10 years. It begins almost immediately after the events of Thor: Ragnarok and goes in completely dry. If you haven’t been following Marvel Studios since the first Iron Man in 2008, you will eventually get lost at some point. The closest we get to recap exposition is a quick primer on the nature of the Infinity Stones, Marvel’s most powerful MacGuffins, but otherwise, this is a film designed for die-hard Marvel fans.
Which at this point, given the size, scope, and success of Marvel Studios, is a sizable contingent of moviegoers. This is definitely a crowd-focused movie, and in that extent, it succeeds. If you’ve got a favorite character, they’ll make an appearance and show their stuff (although Hawkeye and Ant-Man fans will be sorely disappointed). There are epic conflicts, snappy one-liners, and a relentless sprint toward the biggest superhero smackdown in Marvel history.
But too often, those same qualities are also faults in equal measures. The sheer amount of characters means that most of them are given very small amounts of screen time. The fights, while numerous and often very high-pitched, tend to lack character and depth, too often relying on CGI versions of the characters pinballing across the screen. And several of the jokes feel a bit forced, often coming at inappropriate times as if they were pre-programmed by a script-writing machine and spit out at regular intervals. The odd sound mix, which often drowns out dialogue, doesn’t help that aspect.
There’s a strange air of frustration surrounding the film considering its creative team. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, as well as writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, were behind both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, two of the most explosive and entertaining films in the MCU. Maybe its the sheer scope of the undertaking here, but Infinity War lacks the grittiness, the immediacy, and personal emotional stakes that made those films connect so well. It double downs on the four-color spectacle that was used as a highlight in those films, but that gets incredibly wearying after 156 minutes.
The Russos have a strange habit of holding scenes longer than they need to be. Extended pauses, protracted battles, rambling conversations. Trimming 20 minutes and more than few extraneous characters (half the cast shows up for one scene then vanishes completely) would have gone a long way to making the film tighter. There’s also serious pacing issues, especially in the first act. The narrative jumps between so many different plot lines and locations so quickly that I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences start suing for whiplash. This is incredibly apparent during the first appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy, when the film immediately jumps from a dark scene with a serious orchestral backdrop, to a colorful space scape with classic funk/pop as a backing track.
All that being said, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. The film does get to focus on some of the most compelling and consistent performers in the MCU, often recontextualizing their characters. It’s great, for instance, to see Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in such a cosmic storyline after his supremely grounded solo film. Holland reminds us why he’s the best of the cinematic Spider-Men to date, and he easily holds his own against outsize personalities like Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. Some of the best scenes come from the quiet interactions of Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision, who’s budding romance is threatened by the fact that Vision holds an Infinity Stone in his head and is a primary target for Thanos’ forces. Olsen remains the Avengers most undersung performer, and Bettany approaches his role with a seriousness that never feels overdone. Likewise, Marc Ruffalo continues to show major amounts of dedication in his role as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and he’s possibly given the most interesting side-arc of any of the cast here, which he sells effortlessly.
It’s Josh Brolin as Thanos that steals the show, however. Thanos is the true main character of this story, which in and of itself is a novel twist on a film that otherwise holds a bit too hard to the MCU formula. The CGI and motion capture work here is stunning, and Thanos is several times more expressive than most of the human cast, many of whom appear bored, tired, or some combination of the two. Thanos has genuine pathos, emotion, and purpose behind what he does that feels compelely justified and natural. While he’s nowhere near the complex and sympathetic villain that Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger was in the superior Black Panther, he’s definitely one of the deeper and more interesting antagonists in the MCU.
The film’s biggest issue, however, is the fact that so much of what happens on screen means very little. This is a part one of two movie. We don’t get a true resolution, and the rather downbeat and grim climax doesn’t have the impact it should because we all know the story isn’t over. It’s hard to mourn the loss of a character when you know they’re contractually obligated to appear in several more films that are already in some stage of production. So much of the film is less a proper story and more just a build-up to the final battle, which while suitably epic and frenetic, comes at a point where so much has been happening for so long that spectacle fatigue has already kicked in.
Infinity War is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. There’s too much raw talent involved, and there’s something for every Marvel fan, from humor to action to an overabundance of mostly-amazing CGI work. But it isn’t nearly the pinnacle of the comic book film that it’s hyped to be, and it comes off more as the crossover story arc you need instead of the one you really want. If anything, it’s a victim of its own PR campaign. But this will probably all look better in the context of the sequel next year so, you know…just keep waiting…
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B